|Poet Kelly McQuain|
Laura Davis: Where do you write? Paint us a word picture.
Kelly McQuain: My home office is often too cluttered, so I write in coffee shops, on the couch, and on the bed in our TV room. Every time I think of cleaning out the office I think I could be writing instead, and so I write. I have books stacked in all those places, leaning towers of books with papers and old drafts wedged between them. I nest myself in the chaos and I do my best to create. Sometimes I write into the wee hours of the night, and I find words and lines still going through my head as I try to fall asleep. I sometimes get up and write those down. When I’m full-speed on a project, I’ll get up and dive into it when I come downstairs in the morning, sitting with a strong cup of black tea from Taiwan (a neighbor’s gift) or a cup of Earl Gray. Writing is going well if I get to the middle of the afternoon and realize I forgot to eat. For motivation, I remind myself that time is finite—a subject of much of my work. And occasionally a little wine or scotch can grease the wheel. Hemingway reputedly said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” You can't exactly follow that advice and be healthy. I like to temper Hemingway's notion with an idea from Oscar Wilde: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
LD: What is your favorite exercise that gets the words flowing?
KM: For poetry, I keep files called Word Soup on the Notes app on my iPad. Phrases, ideas for lines, interesting messages people write me, things I read in books, fortune cookies--all that. Basically it's my version of a word bank. These phrases and notes get scrambled together. When I begin to work on a project, I may have an initial idea, but I like to snowball that idea with whatever randomness gets attracted to it. I print out some word soup and grab a legal pad and free-write. It’s a process of magnetism, as well as teasing out the loose thread of narrative I see in random associations. My home office is often too cluttered, so I write in coffee shops, on the couch, and on the guest bed. I have books stacked in all those places, leaning towers of books with papers and old drafts wedged between them. I nest myself in the chaos and do my best to create.
LD: What color is your writing process?
KM: It’s kaleidoscopic. With poetry, I play with space and form on the typed page, viewing the poem the way I might a painting. How does this phrase look next to that one? How is the rhythm working to both the eye and the ear? I like to play with the way white space can create both a mental and vocal caesura. Unfortunately, with a lot of online magazines using templates like WordPress, they sometimes can only print poems where each line begins at a flush left margin. Does that mean poems that have a lot of spacing peculiarities are going to be an endangered species? I think the technology will eventually get better, but for now I sometimes feel straitjacketed in terms of where I can send certain poems. I’m a believer, however, in the idea that a poem dictates its own form. When I write in traditional forms, I like to play with the rules and push them. Form sometimes fractures, becoming a kaleidoscope leading to something new.
LD: How do you decide that you are finished working on a story, essay, or poem?
KM: Sometimes I just know when a poem is finished. Not that it's tied up in a neat bow or anything. Rather, it's a sense I have pushed it as far as possible and I'm now finding myself engaged in a new project. For poems that seem riskier, I have a rotating group of readers I can show a draft to. I'll get one or two opinions of people I really respect. Not people who tell me what I want to hear, but people who will tell me what I need to hear. To be honest, I think trying to please a large workshop can deplete a work of its impulse or make a writer feel pulled in too many directions. Who wants to be drawn and quartered? Once in a while I will participate in a workshop at a conference, but that’s largely for the esprit du corps and to get new ideas for forms and techniques. When it comes to polishing a work myself, I read the piece aloud again and again to see if the phrasing, the beats, the line breaks and the pauses all feel right, since I believe sound goes hand in hand with image. I do the same thing with writing prose.
LD: How long have you been writing? What’s the first thing you remember feeling good about having written?
KM: I remember writing Battlestar Galactica stories in 7th grade study hall with my friend Susan, and writing and drawing my own comics with other friends even before that. A poem in Velvet Rodeo called “Creation Myth” talks about reading my earliest poems in the state capital when I was a kid—twelve, maybe? Thirteen? I had won a state contest and it was a long, cold drive through the West Virginia mountains, where we lived. My whole family went. Those poems are long forgotten, but the fact that my family had faith in me is still remembered.